When the U.S. military, along with a handful of allies, invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, hopes ran high that our lighter, swifter, all-volunteer service would accomplish the mission in short order and be home in time for Christmas.
Five years later, a crude reality has emerged: Our all-volunteer service is straining under the weight of forces that few in Washington had predicted. Some analysts believe that our military has been irreparably damaged by the protracted conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because the military is all-volunteer, the biggest problems are recruitment and keeping personnel in the ranks for the duration of their enlistments. To meet recruitment goals and to keep troop levels adequate during this era of the so-called war on terror, the military, especially the active Army and the Reserves, has been forced to lower its standards for enlistees.
The result, some officials acknowledge, is that the Army is ailing, and the problem is reflected in the rate of desertions. More soldiers and enlistees are deserting in numbers that have not been seen since Vietnam, when the draft was in effect.
A harsh truth is that too many of our volunteer soldiers do not belong in uniform. They are unable to endure the physical demands and discipline required.
An Army study offers a profile of who is most likely to desert as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on. They are, among others, those who lack high school diplomas or have low aptitudes, those who receive waivers for problems such as drug use and criminal records, those who are in the upper age limit for recruits, those who have family issues and those with known pre-existing medical problems. (Ironically, studies show that during Vietnam, draftees were less likely to desert than volunteers.)
Many enlistees get to boot camp and realize they cannot cope with the rigors of training, deserting within a few weeks. Many others simply refuse to be sent back to the war zones time and again, especially guardsmen and reservists who thought they were signing up to supplement their incomes as "weekend warriors."
Those enlistees, their families and employers had no idea their part-time stateside duties would morph into full-time fighting overseas.
"This is what happens when you try and fight a long, unpopular war with a volunteer force," said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and a fellow for the Center for American Progress. "The Army was not built to fight a long war."
Unlike during Vietnam, most of today's deserters do not leave for political reasons, officials say. They leave mainly for personal reasons. According to the Army, about nine in every 1,000 soldiers deserted during fiscal year 2007, compared to nearly seven per 1,000 in 2006.
Many Army officials say that because the desertion numbers represent less than 1 percent of that branch's enlistees, the problem is not serious. Others disagree, arguing that the numbers are a symptom of a larger problem: The Army has lowered its standards to unacceptable levels. As a result, it is signing up people who weaken the ranks and diminish readiness and security.
As desertions have increased, the Army has stepped up punishment, mostly as a warning to others. The overwhelming majority of deserters are handled administratively, given other than honorable discharges. This is especially true for those who desert during basic training. Soldiers who desert when their units are preparing to deploy, however, will more than likely go to prison. The standard sentence is two years, a far cry from the days when desertion during wartime was punishable by death.
As the wars continue, the Army will have to double its efforts to attract enlistees and keep them, a reality that is not lost on top brass and administrators such as Roy Wallace, director of plans and resources for the Army.
"We're asking a lot of soldiers these days," Wallace said during a televised news conference. "They're humans. They have all sorts of issues back home and other places like that. So, I'm sure it has to do with the stress of being a soldier. We have been concentrating on this. The Army can't afford to throw away good people. We have got to work with those individuals and try to help them become good soldiers."
Rebuilding the Army will be difficult, especially when the draft is out of the question. Re-enlistment bonuses and other inducements may be Band-Aid fixes, but they are not real solutions to the deterioration of quality.
The next president and Congress will have to muster the political courage to restore the Army's viability — battle readiness, state-of-the-art machinery and armaments and adequate numbers of qualified troops. Above all, the next commander in chief will have to think twice before sending troops into another war.